Since Oct. 16, 2006, the drive down to the Homestead Correctional Facility has been long. With the sun breaking through the early morning clouds, I head down three interstates, through three tolls, before I drive the long stretch leading up to the grayed-out building, surrounded by razor wire. Often comparing the hustle and bustle of my Miami neighborhood, and this rural farmland, an odd feeling of peace usually falls on my shoulders. I never sleep well on Sunday night. Maybe it’s the fact that Monday mornings are the only day of the week I have to set a 6 a.m. alarm, or maybe it’s the fear of leaving the women once again.
Like many of the 17 women in the writing workshop, I too have had my share of grief and worry. Some of it has been the effect of my own late-teen angst – a time when I too found myself in trouble with the law – but most of it has been the result of my older sister. Being the middle child I remained close to my mother’s side as a child while we were woken up in the middle of the night by drug-induced anger, or as she was brought home by women and men in uniform. My sister never grew out of this lifestyle.
Over this past Christmas break (Dec. 2006) I visited her in the Allegheny County Jail. The visiting facilities are poor, as a Plexiglas wall, a steel chair, and then a wire door (totaling about eight feet between my hand and hers) comprises the long hallway of a box we are forced to visit inside of. I sat choked up for an hour with this beautiful person hidden behind heroin scars. She has only a few teeth left, her skin is jaundice, and the area below her eyes is sunken and shallow, yet she is beautiful. In between the begging and pleading to get her out – she promises that this rehab will be the one to get her on her feet – I make jokes. She laughs, but loathing her looks, covers her face, and hides her broken smile.
Talking to her throughout the years I have come to realize that sometimes we don’t get choices. Sure, she may have made the choice to puff on a crack pipe at the age of 20 years old, but it is my contention that she never made the choice to have the hunger continue for the past eight years. A good rehab program could have been a choice, but we don’t have the money to foot the $10,000 a month bill. With no help from the state or from her family, her animalistic behavior has come to fruition – it is kill or be killed, survive or die, steal or starve, prostitute or withdraw. Life has been full of choices, but they have not always been the most ideal.
Sitting in the workshop I feel the same anger, love, fear, confusion, sadness, and frustrations that I have felt with my older sister. We all play a part in the game of circumstance and sometimes I am the enabler – often being called a bleeding heart liberal – and other times I am the aggressor who demands self-respect, honesty with ones self, and purpose.
The workshop has surprised me in so many ways because I think that while I always see the good in people, and I have always been attracted to telling both sides of a story, I was not prepared for the emotional toll. I leave the compound with tears stinging, with a lump in my throat. I hear remorse, anger, love, fear and I see such greatness and possibility amongst those sitting in the circle. It pains me to leave, while they stay because of circumstance. The deep emotion that is carried out with me through the prison gates continues as I talk about my experience over dinner with family, while out at a bar with my friends, in my journal, in the writings I edit for the workshop, and through the articles that I am preparing for the media.